In the Gospel of John, Jesus is the Cosmic Word. From the very beginning he is clear about his transcendent nature and his close relationship with his Father in heaven.
How painful then, for his friends and family, to see Jesus in the most degrading of human positions-hung on a cross. He has been betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter and hangs before the Marys and his beloved disciple, slowly dying. O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded, a hymn we sing today, expresses this grief:
Thy beauty, long-desirèd,
hath vanished from our sight;
thy power is all expirèd,
and quenched the light of light.
Jesus was light and life and hope. Jesus dying must have felt like the most gut wrenching, mind spinning incongruity. I know I would have wanted to run. Run somewhere safe, somewhere far away.
The Marys and the beloved disciple challenge us. They do not run from the agony. They do not turn away from Jesus’s pained body. They do not try to get Jesus off the cross. They have the courage to sit with Jesus, to commune with him, to be present to him, as he experiences his final suffering.
In the news lately, there has been a lot of talk about the recently discovered Gospel of Judas. In this text, written about 150 years after our four Gospels, Judas doesn’t betray Jesus, Jesus asks Judas to turn him in. There’s something comforting about this image-It presents a Jesus fully in control. But none of the Gospels in our canon presents this convenient story.
Jesus was betrayed. Jesus did die. Jesus willingly let go of control over his own life for our benefit. And through all of that, the Marys and the beloved disciple never left his side.
Last week, I had the opportunity of hearing Charles LaFond, the former assistant at Church of Our Savior, lead a retreat about Holy Week. He told the story of the experiences of the chaplains to the morticians in New Orleans. After the waters in New Orleans receded, the city was left with the horrifying task of dealing with tens of thousands of dead bodies. 400 morticians from around the country were brought in and a temporary tent city was built.
Trucks brought in 40 bodies at a time, and they were distributed among the morticians. While there were many drownings, there were also as many as 85 murder victims disguised as hurricane victims. After the autopsies, bodies were tagged and stored in refrigerated units.
The job of the chaplains was to bless the truck with the bodies, to bless the bodies again as they were taken to the refrigerators after the autopsies, and to be with the morticians when they wept between autopsies. Like the Marys and the beloved disciple’s ministry of presence to Jesus, the chaplains’ jobs were not to free the morticians from their horrific duties, but to stay close with them, to love them and pray for them, to be alongside them as they did their work.
That kind of commitment and presence takes enormous courage. Facing Jesus’ death takes courage, too. We worship a God who, while ultimately triumphant, was willing to be completely weak and mortal for our behalf. While we are Easter people, we are also called to remember the shocking vulnerability of our Lord. We are called to abide with him in prayer, as many of you did during the prayer vigil last night.
In the same way, when our loved ones are experiencing crisis that makes us uncomfortable: when they are losing their memory, dying, getting a divorce, losing a child, we are called to be with them. We cannot solve their problems. We cannot always make them feel better, but like the Marys and the beloved disciple, we can show up, we can pray for them, we can love them.
Good Friday invites us to grow into people who can abide in pain. For we know that it is through Jesus’ pain, through his death that we must enter to experience the joy that follows. In the meantime, we are asked to wait with Jesus still on the Cross. Again from our hymn:
In thy most bitter passion
my heart to share doth cry,
with thee for my salvation
upon the cross to die.
Ah, keep my heart thus moved
to stand thy cross beneath,
to mourn thee, well-beloved,
yet thank thee for thy death.